On a recent Saturday morning, Democratic legislators addressed a packed union hall in Dublin, and asked the assembled volunteers to help them elect a new colleague.
“We need somebody in the Assembly who we don’t have to convince to do the right thing for political reasons," Peninsula Assemblyman Kevin Mullin said.
If you weren't looking for her, you might miss the candidate that all these volunteers are giving up their Saturdays for. Wedged between the speakers at the front of the room is Cheryl Cook-Kallio: a short, feisty former city councilwoman from Pleasanton.
Cook-Kallio is running to unseat Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, the only Republican from the Bay Area in the state Legislature. More important to the vote counters in Sacramento, Democrats need to pick up just two seats this election to gain a two-thirds supermajority in the Assembly. The party's 10-point registration advantage in the 16th District, which stretches from Walnut Creek south and east out to the Altamont Pass, makes it a top election target.
A two-thirds supermajority would allow Democrats to raise taxes for priorities like road maintenance without requiring any Republican votes.
“We certainly need to do something on transportation, and we certainly need to do something on housing," Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said. "I’m not quite sure if Catharine would be willing to tackle those issues."
The Democratic Party has spent nearly $1.4 million on Cook-Kallio's campaign this cycle, and 40 different Democratic legislative campaigns have redirected their funds to help her effort.
Cook-Kallio says she'd focus on fighting climate change and reducing gun violence if elected, but says she's aligned with the centrist Democratic values of the district.
"It is a very fiscally conservative district, and my time on the City Council shows that I can manage money," Cook-Kallio said. "In addition, they are also very socially progressive, and that is where my heart lies."
Baker Breaks with GOP on Key Votes
The district’s moderate bent allowed Republican Catharine Baker to win a close race in 2014, and become both a Republican firewall standing in the way of Democratic dominance in the Legislature, and a moderate voice who has split with her party on big-ticket issues.
Baker was the lone Republican vote on SB 32, which extended California's emission-reduction goals. She also voted for two bills to extend parental leave, and a measure that requires background checks for ammunition purchases.
"Republicans in this area have said, 'I’m glad you’re looking at the common-sense gun control bills,' " Baker said. "They’re supportive of having Republicans at the table when it comes to climate change and global warming."
Baker has been criticized by Democrats for not voting on a companion climate change bill, AB 197, which gave the Legislature more authority over how emissions goals will be met. The measure needed passage in order for SB 32 to go into effect.
"You couldn’t have one without the other. It was in my mind very disingenuous," Cook-Kallio said. "She’s not who she seems to be."
Baker said she abstained because the measure didn't demand accountability from the agency tasked with carrying out the law, the California Air Resources Board.
Fighting the Burnout Factor
Republicans have put equal emphasis on this race in an attempt to hold the line against a supermajority and the tax increases they fear will come with it. Republican National Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon ranks the race as the party's second-highest priority this election, behind only the competitive 66th Assembly District race where Democrats are hoping to unseat incumbent Republican David Hadley.
"There is a lot of emotional and personal commitment on the part of us Bay Area conservatives to see her keep her seat," Dhillon said. "I wish we had more people in Sacramento like Catharine Baker willing to work across the aisle."
The party has poured more money into Baker's campaign than any other legislative race in the state, hoping to push back against a growing registration disadvantage in the district and the increased turnout that comes with a presidential election.
Both parties are working to combat a burnout factor among voters in the region, who are being asked to vote in their sixth legislative election in the last two years.
"There has likely been some voter fatigue in that district," Speaker Rendon said. "They’ve had a lot of elections and special elections."
Baker finished first in a 2014 primary election against Democrats Tim Sbranti and Steve Glazer, and beat Sbranti in the general election months later. The next year, Glazer won two special elections to capture a state Senate seat. Baker finished six points ahead of Cook-Kallio in this June's primary. All six races have led to a flood of campaign TV ads and mailers in the East Bay's bedroom communities.
"I’d like to get my mailbox back," Kathy Stapleton of Danville said. "I’d like to reclaim that and get normal mail again."
Stapleton said she usually votes for Democrats, but the deluge of campaign ads have her questioning whether to vote against the incumbent Baker.
"Everything I hear about Cook-Kallio is very favorable. I like her stance on absolutely everything," she added. "Until I get the mudslinging from the Baker side, and then I think, well maybe I better rethink that."
Another Democrat who hasn't taken a final position in the race is state Sen. Steve Glazer. He says Cook-Kallio still needs to prove she can take votes independent of the party establishment that has been the driving force behind her campaign.
"I think that that is a big question mark," Glazer said. "She talks bipartisanship, but where are the examples of where she’s been bipartisan? Where are the examples of where she’s stood up to power within the Democratic Party?"
Glazer also questions the importance of a legislative supermajority. In recent years, moderate Democrats like Glazer have often diverged from the party's liberal wing.
"As the Legislature finds a center where centrist Republicans and centrist Democrats can find common ground, the common wisdom that if you’re a Democrat you’ll vote for taxes is not the case," Glazer added.